What’s real in the post-truth era?
by Richard Thieme
From the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, December 4, 2016.
A web of truthiness, post-truths, and half-truths is replacing a once-shared goal of knowing the truth itself. The task of understanding our world has become more and more complex and difficult to navigate. As the recent presidential campaign illuminates, knowing what’s real is a non-trivial enterprise and the effort to understand is a task for experts, if they still exist. The relationship of the maps in our minds to the territory we call “the real world” is blurred and uncertain.
Ever since Eddie Bernays changed his occupation from “advertising man” to “public relations expert” a century ago, the distortion and manipulation of the truth through covert campaigns has been a mainstay of public life. We make light of it by calling it “spin” instead of covert information warfare, but covert warfare it is, and the prize is the capture of friends and enemies alike in webs of disinformation. In a world of global interconnections, it is impossible for information to be aimed at only one group. What intelligence professionals call “blow back” is inevitable and we deceive ourselves in the process of deceiving others.
“Post-truth” is a silly word for distorted images and ideas. The ubiquity of social media and the diminishing importance of responsible journalism has serious consequences. Words — stories, narratives – have been weaponized and collateral damage is extensive.
Here’s what’s coming our way:
(1) Propaganda from multiple sources. The Russians excelled in the use of stolen material, disseminated through Wikileaks, to impact the recent campaign. They have done the same with neighbor countries to undermine clarity about their intentions and actions. There is a NATO group, for example, that does nothing but peruse Russian propaganda to understand it, but it was discovered that even though they knew that was the task, they unconsciously absorbed false material as if it was true, because that’s what the mind does, it treats data as data, even when it knows the data is a fiction. So the NATO group has to be debriefed in order to recalibrate their maps of the real to … well, to the real.
But who debriefs the debriefers? Who debriefs us?
(2) Julian Assange has one goal, to “crush the bastards,” as he said, meaning anyone in power, anyone with authority, and to that end, he has disseminated stolen documents without discrimination, resulting in a great deal of “collateral damage.” Self-righteousness if a tricky path to walk, however, without a debriefing from outside the group-think of the inner circle. It will be interesting to see if he pursues messages from Trump with the same zeal.
Given the ease of hacking into servers, we can expect more of this from multiple parties but the narrative gets even hazier, because material can be (and has been) altered. We can read emails as if they are true, but we don’t know if they are true. This is a game that will be played both ways and many ways. A spectrum of amateurs and professionals with access to purloined materials will distribute both real and false information selectively and strategically. It will be a full-time job to untangle that mess.
(3) That job used to belong to the professional journalism, but the erosion of journalism and the substitution for it of hundreds of web sites has resulted in a world in which people believe anything and everything, and the critical thinking needed for research and discernment is missing in action. Confirmation bias is only a click away. A recent study showed that most teens do not even question what they read online or think about sources.
But it’s not just teens who check their brains at the door of web portals. The recent campaign revealed the impotence of newspapers which expressed near-universal disapproval of Trump – because many Trump supporters do not get “news” from those untrusted sources who are called out as dishonest crooks at mass rallies and booed by the herd. Let me provide one example of the outrageous narratives this leads some to accept.
I was asked to submit a bio to a local group as a possible speaker. My topics were misunderstood, distorted by the framework through which the contact for the group read them, and he sent an email defining the speech he hoped I could produce:
“ … it would be fantastic to have a “dream speaker” that could link the topics of the Power-Elite, Occult ritual, who’s teaching them how to do this, why they are doing it, pedophilia, bohemian grove, Eyes Wide Shut parties, the Clintons, technocratic globalism, child trafficking, main stream media, main stream entertainers/Hollywood, Alien/UFO government mythology, Lolita Island, War, Alister Crowley followers, state sponsored assassinations, CIA, FBI and much much more…. a speaker who can skillfully link all of these dark connections in an eloquent, matter-of-fact way.”
The email provided a link to a video in which three men discussed all this and more in sensational unsupported terms and added satanic ritual, cannibalism, and child rape to the antics of the power elite, crimes that are unreported by “the media” because publishers are at those parties, participating in rape and human sacrifice, hence unwilling to tell the truth about them.
That group is a mainstream group. That video has more than half a million hits. That absurd narrative collects unthinking people into a homogeneous group which by repetition reinforces the credibility of their assertions. In a similar vein, I am sometimes asked after speeches if I believe we went to the moon or have rovers on Mars.
How does one even begin to respond?
The inability to discriminate between plausible and crazy plus the impossibility of knowing what’s real in this perpetual fog of information warfare causes anxiety and fear, which people counter with narratives to comfort the afflicted soul. Then it’s called “truth.” When we feel helpless and lacking control over our lives, we project impossible narratives onto fragmented data and comfort ourselves with theories which, if examined closely, would be seen to be foolish.
And many won’t read these words in a newspaper, or if they do, will dismiss it as the propaganda of coastal elites, written between pedophile parties. These are omens of dark times ahead with dire consequences for the existence of a consensus reality, a sane map we can share, which is the basis and fabric of civil discourse and a free society.
Richard Thieme is an author and professional speaker based in Milwaukee. He has published four books in the past six years and his clients have included Microsoft, Medtronic, Allstate Insurance, as well as the NSA, Secret Service, FBI, U.S. Department of the Treasury, and Los Alamos National Lab.